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September 9, 2010

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Toronto Maple Leafs 2010 – 2011 Season Preview

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Every time I see the jersey on the left I laugh. “Losers since 1967″. Its not a funny laugh. Its not a “laugh with you” laugh. Its a pathetic, internal, sad laugh at the state of a once proud franchise. The Toronto Maple Leafs are arguably the biggest, most valuable franchise in the NHL. They have the most rabid, loyal fanbase and media in all of hockey. Maybe that is why the Leafs haven’t been to the post season since before the lockout. Maybe the salary cap has destroyed the Leaf’s GM’s chances of BUYING their way into the playoffs. Winning teams aren’t shaped with buying power anymore. Its all about drafting, internal development, and shrewd trades by smart general managers. Maybe thats what the Leafs are missing.

Ever since Brian Burke took over the reigns as Leafs GM, he has made some controversial moves. He traded two first round picks and a second rounder for unsigned Bruins sniper Phil Kessel. He traded Matt Stajan, Jamal Mayers, Niklas Hagman and Ian White for Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, and AHL Defenseman Keith Aulie. He then traded Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake for J.S. Giguere. During the offseason, he traded prospects Viktor Stalberg, Philippe Paradis, and Chris Didomenico for Kris Versteeg and Bill Sweatt (who we couldn’t sign and lost for nothing).

The Phaneuf trade was a steal. It brought the Leafs a new captain, an awesome penalty killer in Sjostrom, and a potential NHL d-man in Aulie. The Kessel trade was arguably bad. We lost out on Tyler Seguin, and gained Kessel, a small, undeniably talented goal scorer who may or may not be able to elevate his game past what we’ve seen. We dumped Toskala and Blake, horrendous underachievers who provided us with a potential #1 goalie in J.S. Giguere. In my opinion, it is these players that Burke obtained in these trades who will make or break the Leafs this season. This season is a big “IF”.

IF Phaneuf, Kessel and Giguere can all be NHL All stars, then the Leafs will be in good shape. Kessel needs to score 40+ goals, and actually get assists. Phaneuf needs to play like the Norris trophy nominee he was in his first couple of seasons in the league. He needs to score 15+ goals, get 30+ assists, and have a GREAT plus minus. Giguere needs to win 30+ games (in about 55 starts). He needs to be able to save the first shot he faces in a game (which Toskala couldn’t) win shootouts for us, and make those game changing saves at the end of the game to preserve wins. If all 3 can do those things, the Leafs should improve greatly.

Unfortunately, the season doesn’t hinge on their performances alone. For the Leafs to improve on their 2nd worst finish in the League, then those 3 need to perform, but to contend for a playoff spot, the rest of the team needs to perform. IF newly acquired Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur can take steps forward in their development and all contribute about 20 goals, the Leafs will be in great shape. They need to shed their identities as NHL 3rd liners and really break out. Versteeg is likely to see 1st line minutes at even strength and the powerplay and thus needs to contribute. MacArthur is likely to see 2nd line time. Armstrong needs to shed his reputation as a 3rd line grinder who can chip in 15 goals, step it up, earn a spot on the 2nd line and score 25 goals. If those newly acquired wingers can put up 20 each the offense will be greatly improved.

IF our young forwards can also take a step forward in their development, we will be in even better shape. Nikolai Kulemin, Tyler Bozak, and Mikhail Grabovski will all be integral parts of our scoring lines and really need to exceed expectations. Bozak is likely to be our top line centre, so he needs to set up Kessel and Versteeg for about 45 assists, and score 15+ himself. Kulemin and Grabovski will likely team up on the second line with MacArthur and they could be an underrated and devastating scoring line. Grabo needs to do what he did in his first full season with the Leafs and score about 50 – 60 points. Kulemin needs to keep improving, both as a scorer and as a tenacious forechecker. If those three can do what they are capable of, the Leafs will reap the benefits of skillful youth.

The dark horse of the forward group will be rookie Nazem Kadri. Many people have him as a projected 3rd line center. For the Leafs to contend for a playoff spot, the forwards I have all mentioned need to perform, but if they are really going to exceed expectations, Kadri needs to be the all star many people think he will be. He needs to be a calder trophy candidate, and challenge Bozak for top line center by season’s end. He needs to have a stellar pre season, make the team, and stay a Leaf for 82+ games. He dominated junior last year, and if he can put up 15 goals and 40 assists, he will be the linchpin in the Leaf’s offense.

The offense is not expected to do much, but the defense is deep and is expected to be among the league’s best (regardless of last season’s performance). Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson need to keep developing, Brett Lebda and Matt Lashoff need to come in and be effective, and Kaberle, Beauchemin and Komisarek need to do what they’ve done in past successful seasons for them. If it all comes together, and Gustavsson and Giguere are solid in net, the Leafs could be like last year’s Avalanche. Its all a big IF.

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